Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Av 5766 - July 26, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Fiction by M. Sonnenfeld

Part 2

Michael is a 12-year-old boy who has lived on a sheep farm his whole life and loves it. His father built up the farm from scratch, but now that he has found his Jewish roots he wants to sell the farm and move to a city to be part of a Jewish community. Michael is to go to a Torah school. Both parents are enthusiastically studying to learn more about Torah and mitzvos, but Michael is indifferent, if not hostile. He loves the wide open spaces and the closeness to nature and does not want to leave. His parents have hired a yeshiva bochur to come live with them and tutor Michael to help him make up what he has missed in Torah education. They are about to have their first lesson.

The morning found him yawning at the table.

"There's a lot of work to do," the young man smiled at Michael while placing the unfamiliar books in a pile in front of him. "We have to start with the basics, the alphabet. After that we'll learn a little halochoh, some Chumash and I'll tell you a little bit about the Mishnah. Are you with me?"

The question was appropriate; Michael had to admit. The spring morning sparkled through the windows, a morning of blue skies and golden fields that danced as far as the distant hills. If only he could spend some time fixing the Night Fence, for example, or repainting the large barn. The exterior needed a thorough paint job, he knew. In the good old days his father would have noticed that before him. But now, during the transition period before the move to the city, Michael's father was preoccupied with completely different things, like the books that he just received. The job of the painting, therefore, fell completely onto Michael's shoulders, just like all of the other repairs.

"Here," the tutor waved a paper in front of Michael. It was full of square black symbols. "These are the letters."

The letters! Michael made a face. The jumble of squares and triangles didn't resemble any letters that Michael recognized.

"I've known how to read since I was five years old. You don't have to teach me."

"In Hebrew?" The tutor inquired.

"In English. What did you think I meant?" Michael didn't like the sound of things.

"In Hebrew," the tutor repeated. "In the language that Hashem wrote the Torah."

"Hash . . . " Michael's face clouded over.

"Hashem," said the tutor. "G-d. The Creator of the World. You know there's a G-d, right?" The tutor was almost pleading.

"Sure," Michael replied. "So what?"

"So he had a special treasure," the tutor explained hesitantly, "the most precious thing there ever was; `Torah' is its name."

"Torah," Michael repeated after him.

"And He gave it to us, to Am Yisroel at Har Sinai."

"That's not to us!" Michael's fist hit the table disappointedly. "I'm not from Israel. I'm from here."

"So am I," said the tutor immediately. "And both of us are still a part of Am Yisroel even so. Both of us are lucky enough to be Jewish. You know that, right?"

"I know." Michael didn't look too happy about it. "If we weren't Jewish then your friends wouldn't have been able to influence my father this way. He wouldn't have listened to them. He would have continued nurturing the farm. He would have kept painting the barns and checking the fences and he might have even installed electric gates. He wouldn't be busy with real estate agents, and plan to send me away in the fall, in the fall . . . "

His strength ran out. He buried his head on his arm.

"You . . . I . . . " the tutor was completely confused. He hadn't expected such a bitter attack nor did he understand the connection between all the things that Michael had just shared, even though he had known most of them beforehand. "You and I, both of us, we're lucky enough to be members of the Jewish People, the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov and to have gotten this precious gift, the Torah, at Sinai."

"Sinai!" The string of unfamiliar words was just too long for Michael.

"Sinai." Not a hint of impatience could be heard in the tutor's tone. "The mountain in the desert on which the Torah was given. Are you with me?" The tutor grabbed Michael's hands in excitement. "We merited receiving a gift in the desert as part of G-d's great love for us. Not because of something we would give in return — because we didn't have anything to offer. And not because of our practically nonexistent merits. A gift because of a sudden outpouring of love in the middle of the desert. You understand?"

Michael wasn't fazed.

"You also thought our farm was a desert," Michael reminded the tutor dryly.

"No," the tutor was enthusiastic, "this was a real desert. The real thing. You have to understand that G-d took His children whom He loved, the Jewish People, into the desert and He gave them the Torah there, on Har Sinai. You and I were there. We got the Torah."

Michael yawned.

"Do you understand?"

"I want to go," Michael replied simply. "I have work to do on the farm. Will the lesson take much longer?"

"It's not a question of what you want."


The clouds of smoke rose upward in rings from Father's pipe. His shadow, large and dark, was clearly outlined on the white fence that surrounded the yard.

"It's just that he's very young, that's all. I can promise you that he's a good boy. It's just that everything's so complicated. It's hard for him to leave the farm; it's hard for him to imagine life in a different place. Try to understand him; he was born here."

The tutor slouched against the wall of the house.

"I tried," he repeated. "I gave it my best. I did everything possible. He's not interested. I'm telling you."

"He doesn't understand." Father sounded decisive. "His mind's on other things. The studies could have interested him in-and- of themselves since he is, after all, a very intelligent young man. It's the connection between the events that confuses him."

The tutor spread his hands out in front of him.

"Supposing you're right. What can we do about it? It really is difficult. A drastic move like this . . . changes in all areas of his life and all at once, too."

"Really, what?"

The sudden silence wasn't futile. It was a silence filled with thoughts. The silence of heads working intensely.

"There is something we can do," the guest surprised Father.

Even the breeze suddenly stopped blowing, completely taken aback.

"We need to daven."


Michael knew that the farm was filled to capacity that spring. He and his parents lived there as usual, with the addition of the tutor. Father managed to hire sufficient "hands" during the busy season, and they could be found absolutely everywhere. The number of new sheep that joined the ranks was larger than in previous years. Books, hats and tzitzis, filled every corner. What Michael didn't know was that the farm was also filled with prayers.

Slowly the green of the fields faded. The last of the blossoming trees shed their flowers and enveloped themselves in dense leaves in preparation for the fruit season. Blades of grass yellowed or wilted. Sheaves of grain took their place, wild ones or golden chaff. Summer had arrived.

The morning woke him even before sunrise. Michael tossed and turned in his bed as the orange-pink light of dawn painted the sky with brilliant stripes that went as far as the hills. The hills! It was only yesterday evening after Father returned from his inspection that Father announced that it was time to close the western fence.

"The late-arriving sheep will go there," he explained. "I told the `hands' that they should try to direct the sheep to that area. It's an essential step in case expert help will be needed there."

Michael moaned. Now he knew that the second round of surprises was about to begin. Newborn bleating would again fill the air — only this time Michael wouldn't be there. He wouldn't be near the new life or near the magic of the misty eyes that blinked in amazement at the world. Nor would he be close to the fragile little legs that tried to stand up over and over again, only to bend under the weight of the body. He would miss watching the gentle way the sheep mothered their offspring.

Instead, Michael would sit under lock and key in a square room, facing a pile of thick books and pamphlets full of strange letters that he would never know how to decipher. The ordeal was too great, too bitter.

The light got stronger. Now the fields were a flaming orange. The golden grass almost didn't sway in the wind. Even the fences, their shadows black against the grass, were awed by the beauty of the dawning day. Somewhere out there a worried sheep bleated and the wind carried her voice far in the distance.

It was too much for Michael. Determined, the young man jumped out of bed. In one more minute he would silently sprint down the stairs to the ground floor. No one was awake at such an early hour. He would then slowly cross the large room, making his way past the table in the center that was laden with books. No more, he decided. Today he was going to be free.

Outside, the sweet aroma of the dew waited for him. The air was filled with the pleasant chill of the early morning. It was refreshing. A chorus of birds in a tree chirped loudly. Evidently they felt the same way as Michael: A beautiful day was about to be born. Michael felt it in all of his bones. It would be a day too beautiful to waste on books.

His feet took him almost automatically westward to the hills. Michael was very familiar with the territory of the sheep: clusters of rocks, specially built shady areas and the remains of an old barn. Not one sheep would escape his observant eye. Very soon he would become acquainted with the farm's newest generation of sheep. Wow! If Michael were only wearing a hat, he would have thrown it up in the air in his great enthusiasm. To his chagrin, however, he wasn't wearing such a hat as he had been in a great rush to leave the house. If Mother would criticize him tomorrow for getting completely scorched by the sun — so be it. At that moment the lambs were more important.

From the trees, the birds accompanied him with their song. Behind him, a gentle breeze blew, contemplative.


"He's not here," the tutor admitted at the table. "I looked for him everywhere: in the house, the yard, the surrounding fields. He simply vanished."

"He's on the hilltops," Father said confidently. "It's the season of the late-arrivals."

Behind her cup of coffee, Mother made a face.

"How many times did I ask him not to go down there by himself? Hum?"

The guest looked straight ahead, searching for help. Father wouldn't make eye contact as he talked.

"That's an irresponsible thing to do," Father stated authoritatively. "He might scare the sheep. They're very sensitive at this time of year. He knows that."

The tutor swallowed uncomfortably.

"I . . . I tried very hard," he said in an apologetic tone. "Especially after our conversation. I looked for new ways of explaining things, interesting educational techniques, especially compelling topics . . . "

His voice died. He felt lost.

"It's dangerous," Mother said again in a worried, unbending voice. "The workers wander around there freely. It's far from the house and the office. No one would be able to hear him call for help, if G-d forbid something happened to him." She covered her face in her hands, shaking. "Those `hands.' I would gladly chase them out past the fences, every one of them, without exception."

The tutor trembled.

"We're stuck," Father said. "We need them more than they need us, that's all. Enough talking. Go to the hills, the western ones. The boy's there. I'm sure of it."

The tutor got up immediately and was about to leave when common sense got the better of him.

"I can look for him," he said slowly, "and I could even find him like you said. But then what? How in the world will I bring him back to learning? He doesn't want to learn, Mr. Baruch. I'm so sorry . . . "

"Go," the mother begged. "The `hands' are there. Go. Don't leave him there alone."

The summer sun already shone in its full glory. Blinding white light filled the fields and touched the open sky. If only the tutor had a broad-rimmed hat. All of the foreign workers wore those hats and now he understood why. The sun beat mercilessly down on his head.

He wasn't used to being outside at such times. The freshness of the morning always found him in the beis medrash in yeshiva, leaning over his books. What connection did he have to these golden open spaces? He felt foreign, and, in a certain way, cheated. They worked so hard to convince him, to beg him. They told him that he would have the power to help a rootless Jewish boy. Helping him would save the entire family that the boy would eventually build.

"The parents are interested in learning more," the tutor's friends informed him. "Only the son doesn't know anything. You'll teach him. You'll succeed."

They were referring to the tutor's well-known ability to explain things, to his fiery words that always hit their various targets in the yeshiva. So what happened here? In the open space he lost his talent — or maybe he just didn't know how to speak the right language. Maybe here he had to speak the language of the sheep. Nothing fancy.

If the tutor hadn't been feeling so upset he would have burst out laughing. Rivers of sweat soaked his shirt and the hills were still far away. He still had a long way to go.

"What else can be done? I've already done everything within my power," he informed the smiling sheaves of grain that gladly bowed to him in the wind. "I believe that I have to keep trying."

The thought made him blanch under the layer of red that had spread across his face. "I can't do more than that."

He took a few more steps westward, weary from the sun.

"Yes!" The tutor surprised himself.

Even the light breeze stopped suddenly, amazed.

"We need to daven."

That morning the fields were covered with golden stalks and chaff. There were also thousands of insects, creepy crawlies and butterflies — but only the hill-bound path was saturated with tefillos.


"It's you."

Michael's hand froze. He had been bent over an especially tiny, almost entirely white lamb. Only the spot on its forehead was black. He had found it completely helpless at sunrise next to its mother. But since it was too weak to eat it only lay on its side and bleated pitifully. Michael wasn't alarmed. A little massage could work wonders. He'd seen his father do it back in the good old days of the farm. If he'd had towels and a little bit of vinegar he would have been able to do more. Nevertheless, the lamb was recovering nicely. The lamb blinked its eyes and succeeded in slowly standing up on its tiny legs.

The morning shone especially brilliantly when the lamb stood up. Michael couldn't take his eyes off the newborn. Michael was filthy with sweat and mud, but he didn't notice. The open air, freedom, filled his lungs and the majesty of the heavens compensated for his appearance amidst the grass.

Beautiful things transpired in that hay. For one blissful hour, Michael forgot about the horrible future that awaited him and about that pile of books. Then the sound of dry grass snapping caught his attention and he froze: It was the tutor.

How did he get here?

Now wasn't the time to ponder. In one spontaneous leap Michael landed next to the fence surrounding the pen. The beaten-down grass led him to the edge of the cliff and from there he could jump down to the chain of lower hills.

The tutor was confused.

"Hey, you," the tutor called after the boy, his voice getting lost in the wind. "Don't run away, I don't want to do anything to you. I just want to tell you something . . . just to — tell . . . "

But Michael didn't hear him. The wind whistled in his ears. He climbed down the hill's gentle slope and the tutor followed him. He approached a field of corn bounded by a black fence, wooden and primitive. It unequivocally demanded that he halt.

If the fence had been electronic, maybe the boy could have outsmarted it without too much of a problem. But Father wasn't investing in farm improvements. Father wanted to leave everything; two young men convinced him of that. The boy wouldn't allow this third visitor to continue the destruction.

The fence was too solid. He rammed it with his shoulder, which did nothing but injure him. His temples started to pound and he stopped for a minute, helpless. Behind him the grass rustled, a sign that the tutor was close behind him. The threat of the books was so tangible that Michael rammed the gate with his shoulder a second time and a third. The fence shook with each blow. Suddenly, when his head started spinning and his eyes were forced to close from the strength of the blow, Michael felt that the path in front of him was clear. Clear? He didn't dare think what happened to the fence, he just swayed unsteadily.

"Are you . . . are you," the tutor came up to him, panting, "are you okay?"

Dizzy, Michael let his body fall on top of the broken fence. The tutor approached him completely covered in sweat.

"I'm sorry," he huffed. "I didn't want to scare you. Are you all right? It's too bad that you had such a fright. I just wanted to tell you something. I . . . I saw you there, next to the barn."

Really? Michael was utterly surprised. He was expecting rebuke, criticism or at least a monologue of convincing arguments.

The pleasantness of the tutor's words had an almost mother- like gentleness to them. He sat down on the grass, shocked, in order to see better, to understand better. No, no one accompanied the tutor. He stood there alone and empty- handed. And Michael was apprehensive to discover that the tutor's eyes were full of tears.

"I . . . I just wanted to find them, the lambs," Michael mumbled, feeling a sudden need to explain. "There are two in the large barn, both black, and in the pen I found one that was almost completely white. The black ones are big; they don't look at all like lambs that were born yesterday, and the white one was so tiny." The boy's voice took on a pleading tone. "I couldn't desert him, you understand. I know you wanted me to learn, but that lamb was so weak . . . "

The hole in the fence scared him. He stopped talking suddenly. The tutor's silence resonated louder than a scream.

"You're . . . you're angry with me?"

"No," the tutor spoke softly, gently. "Not at all, I'm just moved."

"Moved?" Michael couldn't understand.

"Moved." The tutor swallowed. "I didn't have a chance to tell you that Moshe Rabbenu, the one who merited to bring us the Torah down from Har Sinai, had been just like you some years earlier."

"Like me?" Michael's lips were sword-like. What similarity was there between him and the transmitter of the Torah?

"Like you," the tutor whispered. "Like you with the sheep. Moshe Rabbenu carried a weak sheep on his shoulders because it couldn't get to the water by itself. The Sages taught us that it was the kindness and the gentleness that he demonstrated then that made him worthy to guide Am Yisroel."

"Am Yisroel." Michael's lips repeated the last words. "The ones who received the Torah?"

The tutor nodded.

"But I don't want this Torah." Tears filled the boys' eyes. "I don't want to receive it. I want to stay here with the sheep, the air and the fences. Yes, even with the fences."

The tutor leaned closer.

"With the fences? Yeah? And the nonstop blows?"

Michael didn't answer; tears dripped onto the grass, one by one.

"So stay here," the tutor sighed. "Stay here, boy. Just know," now he spoke right into the boy's ear, "that there were also fences at Sinai."

"At Sinai?" The word was familiar to Michael.

"At Sinai," the tutor confirmed. "When the entire Jewish People arrived at Sinai to receive the Torah each person stood in the place appropriate for him. The place for the respected members of the community was of course separate from the area designated for the common folk. And what separated them? Fences. Whether physical or not, they were still fences. The people that spread their hands out wide to receive large portions of Torah which they would then savor for hours, days and years of study throughout the generations merited to stand close. Those that put out a finger to lick stood behind a fence that allowed them to receive only a small taste. You understand? And those that shrugged their shoulders in disinterest stood in a very distant section that prevented them from touching the big light. Their eyes burned with jealousy as they saw how they missed the greatest opportunity of all."

Something pained Michael deep inside.

"This fence," Michael gathered his last tiny bit of strength and found himself completely hoarse. "Was it possible to go past it? That is, if someone regretted it?"

"If someone regretted it?" The tutor was completely taken aback. "You asked a good question. If someone regretted it," he scratched his forehead in a quandary and prayed for the right answer. Suddenly his eyes lit up. "Someone who regretted it . . . you yourself gave the answer. If someone changed his mind he would run up to the fence exactly like you did and throw himself on it over and over again despite the terrible pain until . . . "

"Until . . . " The boy repeated the word, full of anticipation.

Even the wind stopped blowing, entirely ready to listen.

"Until it fell, Michael, because there isn't a fence stronger than a person."

Really! And what if it were an electronic fence? Michael was dizzy.

"So that's it." The tutor extended his hand to shake the boy's. "I came to say good-bye. I think that I finished my job here. The Torah's waiting for me in the yeshiva, since I was lucky enough to get in. I wish you a lot of fulfillment with the sheep." He was serious and pained. Michael didn't extend his hand.

"And you," Michael mumbled, his feet shook and he was unable to get up. "Are you going to find other fulfillment? Is there such a thing in the yeshiva?"

The tutor turned around suddenly.

"There is," he said carefully. "Of course there is. There's no greater sense of satisfaction. But how can I describe it to you if you haven't yet experienced a taste of learning, a taste that doesn't let you sleep at night until you've resolved all your questions?"

His eyes shone and his voice was filled with excitement.

"For example, the night before I came here, my chavrusa and I learned just such a topic the whole night long. Ask my friend; he made us black coffee so many times that night to help us stay awake. It's hard for me to explain what exactly drove us to finish everything before sunrise to someone who never experienced it," he apologized.

Michael thought that he knew. In those days when the farm was the highest ideal, the proverbial jewel in the crown, it was impossible to go to bed before the fence was completely built.

Even now, years later, Michael could understand it, despite his youth: it's impossible to fall asleep when a project's going full force. It's just simply impossible. It's better to stay awake, to drink innumerable cups of black coffee and to exert oneself until one's strength runs out. The sleep afterwards, even if it was the short, pale disturbed sleep of morning, will be ten times sweeter for it.

Michael could almost sense the amazing feeling of the morning, getting up with the sun already shining, shaking one's heavy head — who would even notice such trivialities? And running, running out to the books first thing in order to read the cryptic lines that suddenly shone after putting in so much effort to understand them. The lines would be solid, perfect, and Michael could almost feel the great sense of satisfaction penetrate his body like good wine.

He smiled.

"I . . . I think I just made it past the gate," he said.

The tutor also smiled a smile — small like a tiny lamb that was only born yesterday. Michael knew: the tutor wasn't smiling at him, he was smiling at the broken fence and at the pieces of broken wood that landed on the tall golden grass that sparkled freely at the open sky, at the sun.


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